Cloudy With a Chance of Music

When I want to put on some music I reach for iTunes. That afternoon playlist is akin to the morning cup of coffee.

Listening to music should be fun and make you feel good. And so it’s unfortunate that some of the cloud-based music landscape is so depressing.

Amazon and Google have both recently announced that you can upload all your MP3s to their website and listen to them there, instead of leaving them on your hard drive. Pandora, is good internet radio, letting you build a radio station based on your favorite song. And then new services like Rdio and MOG provide you with access to their vast music library, but you don’t own any of the music.

I tried Amazon and it just made me depressed. Though I haven’t received my invite yet, the others who have tried Google Music have all said how pitiful it is. Rdio and Pandora are both fantastic at what they do, but the songs you listen to don’t belong to you.

Let’s take a closer look…

Amazon Cloud Player

To set up your Amazon Cloud Drive you have to sign up for it on the Amazon website. You get 5 GBs of storage for free forever (and it doesn’t just store music).

Once I signed up and was ready to add music to my Amazon Cloud Drive I had to download their uploader. Once I had done that, it made me install Adobe AIR, then scanned my laptop for MP3s and playlists, compared what was on my computer with what I may already have in their Cloud (which at that time was nothing).

Once the uploader had scanned and found all the music on my laptop it was then ready to upload it. All of it.

The default option was to upload everything. But I chose to opt out of uploading it all and I only uploaded one album. And I’m glad I did. I uploaded “Waking Up” by One Republic and it took 45 minutes. This one album accounts for 0.1 GB of my 5 GB limit. If I had chosen to upload to the max of my 5 GBs it would have taken over 33 hours. If I were to upload my entire music collection, which is around 40 GB, it would have taken 11 consecutive days.

I fear what would have happened had I chosen to go with the default and just upload my entire music collection. Would I have been automatically upgraded to and charged for the 50 GB, $50/year plan? How would I have survived for 11 days while my bandwidth was being eaten alive by the uploader?

It’s unfortunate that any albums you have purchased on the Amazon MP3 store in the past are not automatically added to your collection. We know they’ve got the files already up there on their servers, so why not just say: we see you have this album that you bought from us last month, we’ll just add it to your Cloud Drive now without making you upload it and waste 45 minutes of your time.

The reason Amazon doesn’t automatically add songs they have that are in your library to is that they cannot. Legally, since they didn’t get permission from record labels, they have to only provide a storage area for us to upload the music that we already bought. It’s like we’re simply copying it from one hard drive to another.

However, if you buy an album after you’ve signed up for the Amazon Cloud Drive then you can have that album added to your cloud straight away. And if you want to download it from there you can do that as well.

Something else Amazon is so happy to tell you is that if you buy an album from their MP3 store it does not count against your storage limit. Moreover, after your first purchase then you also get 20 GBs of storage for free.

However, these special perks are only for albums you buy after you’ve signed up. Any album you bought from Amazon before you signed up for their cloud will still count against your quota when you upload it. And moreover, the extra 20 GB is not the same as their 5 GB for free forever deal. What you actually get is a free one-year trial of their 20 GB plan.

Fortunately, the 20 GB plan will revert back to the free 5 GB plan once your year is over.

Amazon wants you to buy your music from them, but they need additional compelling reasons. Their prices are usually better than iTunes but that is not enough. The perks of buying an album from Amazon combined with the “perk” of what their Cloud Player offers, are meant to add up to a compelling reason to start using Amazon MP3 store.

But even these new perks don’t add up to much. In Safari on my laptop I’m having a very difficult time getting it to play one song after the other — especially if I want to start in the middle of an album.

Moreover, Amazon Cloud Player does not have a native iOS app, nor does it really support listening in Mobile Safari. Though you can technically get it to work, the website and streaming is next to worthless on the iPhone and iPad.

But if you want to power through and listen to your Amazon music from your iOS device, go to this URL from your iPad or iPhone:

Once there, you:
– Log in
– Tell them you don’t care that your browser is not supported
– Enjoy trying to listen to music on a player that was not optimized for the iPhone

In theory the multi-tasking works, and you can listen to music in the background. But I had a hard time getting it to work well. Also, skipping forwards or backwards via the multi-tasking bar doesn’t work.

One of the whole points of a cloud player is so you can listen to all your music when you’re away from your main library, right? Well driving around Kansas City, streaming my Amazon music through Mobile Safari on my iPhone was just about worthless. It buffered several times, and flat-out stalled a few times. It was no way to listen to music in the car. Granted, Amazon doesn’t officially support iOS and so technically they can’t be blamed for the horrible streaming.

It’s funny though because streaming over 3G on Pandora is awesome — we especially use it at Christmas time to listen to Christmas music and drive around looking at lights. Streaming on Amazon is lousy. Perhaps those with the official Amazon app for the Android device have had a better experience.

So, why no iPhone app? My theory is that since Amazon wasn’t winning against Apple with price they’re adding cloud sync and streaming music player in hopes to sell more music. Their story is: “Why buy from iTunes when you can get the same album for less, auto-added to your Amazon Cloud Player, listen to it anywhere you like, and you can still download it to your laptop and play it in iTunes if you want?”

But I am confused as to why Amazon has completely disregarded iOS. Why wouldn’t they want their cloud player to work on iPhones and iPod touches? Either: (a) they did submit a native App and it was rejected but none of us know about it; (b) they are working on getting better in-browser player; or (c) they flat out don’t want to compete against iTunes and are just not trying.

I want to say that it’s (b) — that Amazon wanted to get their cloud player out ASAP and will worry about adding compatibility with iOS later — but my gut tells me it’s (c). Because why ship with an Android app out of the gate and not an iOS app?

Google Music (beta)

I still haven’t received my invitation to check out Google Music, but from what I have read about it, it is nearly the same gig as what Amazon is doing.

You upload your music and then you can listen to it on any web browser or Android device. But here’s the other thing: Google Music Beta is miserable.

Though you can’t take my word for it, because I haven’t yet had a chance to use it. I am still waiting for my invitation from Google. However, from what I’ve read it sounds like it’s even more frustrating to use that Amazon’s cloud player. And so we’re back at one of my first point that listening to music should be fun and make you feel good.


Pronounced “ar-dee-oh”, Rdio is a Web-based subscription music service. You pay $5 or $10 per month and get unlimited access to their entire music library. The $5 plan gets you web-only access, and the $10 plan allows you to stream and download music to your iPhone or iPod touch.

The solution that Rdio offers is three-fold:

  • Listen to all sorts of music you don’t own.
  • Listen to that music anywhere and everywhere.
  • Discover new music by connecting with others on the Rdio network and seeing what they are listening to and enjoying.

And I think it’s a pretty good deal. The web app is good, the iPhone app is stellar, and streaming is strong. All in all, Rdio is a top-notch user experience and worth the money.

Rdio also has a desktop app for Mac. It allows you to use the hardware keyboard keys for controlling your music, and it will scan your iTunes music directory and add all your songs to your Rdio collection automatically. However, it requires the Safari flash plugin in order to work.

I used Rdio for a while when it was in beta and enjoyed it, but I jumped ship once they started charging. There are many people I know who use it and rave about it. Since I’m on this kick of fiddling with Cloud Music Players I thought I would re-activate my Rdio subscription and scope the landscape once again.

Here I am listening to Rdio right now, in fact. As I write these words I have Coldplay streaming via the Web app which I have running in Google Chrome. (I’d like to install Rdio’s deskop app for my Mac but am not really wanting to install Flash in Safari again.)

I have nothing but good things to say about the quality of Rdio’s service, its price, or its music collection. However, there is something about Rdio that just doesn’t settle for me. And I think it’s the fact that I’m listening to music I don’t own.

A lot of people have been championing for music the trend which began with movies so many years ago: that access is better than ownership. This is Netflix’s bag: rent all the movies you want, whenever you want, for one low monthly fee.

It’s the same idea with Rdio — you are, in a sense, “renting” an album. Though you never have to return it, so long as you keep paying your monthly dues.

However, I have a different attitude towards movies than I do towards music. I will maybe watch my favorite movies once or twice a year, at the most. A great album that I love I will listen to every day for months and months.

Movies are entertaining. Music is personal.

And so I don’t know if the paradigm that access is better than ownership has the same effect on our music library as it does for our DVD collection. The music we listen to, in many ways, is a definition and extension of who we are.

All this to say, that what excites me right now is the idea of access and ownership. I want to own my music, but I want to have it available anywhere and everywhere and on each of the music-playing devices that I own.

The iTunes Locker

These are all just rumors at this point, but the “iTunes Locker” sounds like it will be Apple’s new service that allows you to store your songs and movies in the cloud. You would then be able to stream them to any computer or device running iTunes or iOS, such as your Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

The reason an iTunes locker sounds appealing to me is primarily because my iTunes library is on an external hard drive up in my office and I am currently writing downstairs on my couch. My iTunes library is far too big for my MacBook Pro’s 120 GB Solid State Drive, and so I had to move it to an external drive.

At first I tried storing the music folder onto my Time Capsule so I could access it via the local network here in my house and still listen to music on my laptop no matter what room I was in. But that was a nightmare. So I put it onto an external hard drive and plug that drive in whenever my laptop is at my desk.

In an ideal world I would always have access to my whole iTunes library from my laptop, Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone. Most people solve this by purchasing a Mac Mini and setting it up as the shared media library for the house. This is a pretty good and clever solution for home media library, and would solve most of my problems. The trouble is that: (a) a Mac mini isn’t cheap; (b) if I’m not at home then I don’t get access to those songs; and (c) if I don’t use the mini for syncing my iPhone and iPad then I can’t get all the music and movies I want onto those devices.

If and when Apple opens their iTunes Locker it could potentially solve my dilemma, as well as providing some other great services.

From where I’m standing, I see 4 significant advantages that Apple will have with their music streaming and syncing service that Amazon and Google do not have:

  1. Your iTunes music library will be instantly available online. This is by far one of the biggest shortcomings of Amazon’s and Google’s offerings. Because they don’t have a deal with any of the music labels they have to force you to upload your music, song by song, for day after day.

I cannot imagine Apple not saying that “all the music and movies you have bough through iTunes are already waiting for you in the Locker.” The question is will that music bought in iTunes be free to stream or will the be an “upgrade” charge?

  1. Due to a recent patent, it looks like there will be little to no buffering pauses due to combining snippets of songs stored locally with streaming of them. If you synced only the first 15 seconds of your music you could store 20 times more music on your iPod than if you were syncing entire songs.

This would beat down one of the biggest shortcomings of streaming: the time it take to buffer. Once you “get going” then you usually don’t notice a pause in playback, but jumping from song to song (as opposed to listening to an album straight through) means you have to wait for the next song to buffer.

  1. iPods are the worlds most popular MP3 players. Using Amazon or Google means you have to ditch the MP3 player you’ve been using. (I have many friends who own Android devices and/or PCs who also own iPods.) This to me is one of the primary advantages an iTunes music locker would have, in that, it is a cloud-syncing solution that is integrated with the software and hardware we already use. The Locker would be an upgrade to how we already listen to music.

  2. iTunes is the largest music store in the world and is already a big part of how you listen to music. Which means with iTunes Locker your music could be available on all your Apple devices that have an internet connection. Instead of buying a Mac mini to use as a media center so your iMac, Apple TV, and laptop can all get access to your music and movies, you could just sign up for the locker instead.

There are likely going to be several things that will give the iTunes locker an edge over Amazon and Google, but the premier advantage will be its integration: integration with your current library and integration with your current music-listening lifestyle.

Cloudy With a Chance of Music